Jake Heggie, composer of ‘Moby-Dick,’ chases his Ahab


The San Francisco Opera's production of "Moby-Dick." (Cory Weaver)

Jake Heggie has been seen as the epitome of contemporary American opera composers. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” written with Terrence McNally, had its premiere in 2000. It was a smashing success. It was toward the start of what has become a wave of recent American operas that have taken well-known works — “A Streetcar Named Desire” (AndréPrevin), “Little Women” (Mark Adamo) — and set them to music, to popular acclaim. Some critics, however, deplore the populist turn that some of this work has taken, a style that Heggie — beloved of the public, but not always of the critics — is often seen to represent.

So when Heggie and the librettist Gene Scheer set out to bring Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” to the opera stage, the idea had, for some, a kind of train-wreck fascination. How on earth could anyone set to music a novel that plays out mainly on a whaling ship, and how could a composer whom some critics branded a lightweight do justice to this American classic?

“Moby-Dick,” which opened in 2010 at the Dallas Opera, exceeded expectations — or overturned them. In Leonard Foglia’s visually arresting production, it was a strong and viable work of theater, a creative translation of its source material; and it had a stirring score. It also seems to be following in “Dead Man’s” footsteps as a popular success. It has been seen at all five of the companies that originally produced it, from Australia to Canada, and is coming to other theaters. Last week, Heggie sat in the lobby of his hotel room in Washington for a coffee before attending his first rehearsal of the piece at the Washington National Opera, where it opens on Saturday night.

Heggie, 53, has camera-ready good looks that are in keeping with a certain filmic quality to his life: If you were casting the Jake Heggie movie, he could definitely play himself. He’s better equipped to talk to the press than many composers, since before he wrote his first opera he worked in the marketing department of the San Francisco Opera. He doesn’t quite talk in sound bites, but he knows how to put words around his experiences in an articulate way.

The new opera “was a huge step for both of us,” he said, speaking of himself and Scheer.

“You have to do stuff that scares you,” he added. “If you just do stuff that’s comfortable . . . you never grow as an artist.”

The film version of Heggie’s life has an uplifting moral message: It’s a parable of self-discovery. First, there’s a childhood overshadowed by tragedy: His father committed suicide when he was 10, leaving Heggie’s mother to raise four children alone. Then, there’s ambition followed by a descent to rock bottom: Having trained as a pianist and composer, Heggie married his piano teacher, Johana Harris, and embarked on a career with her as a duo piano team, only to be felled by focal dystonia, the same neurological condition that crippled the hand of the pianist Leon Fleisher. Divorced, withdrawn from music, Heggie ended up moving to San Francisco, where he knew nobody, and starting work at the opera house — even though, having grown up with musical theater, “I thought that opera,” he said, “was kind of stupid.”

Surrounded by singers, however, Heggie began writing music again. A few months after he got to San Francisco in 1994, he gave some songs to the mezzo-­soprano Frederica von Stade; she loved them, and became an active champion of Heggie’s music. Before long, a number of major singers were singing his songs. And not long after that, Lotfi Mansouri, then the general manager of the San Francisco Opera, suggested he fly to New York to meet with the playwright Terrence McNally to discuss collaborating with him on a new opera. The rest is history — as well as being an unprecedented case of an impresario hiring his PR guy to write an opera.

“Dead Man” continues to divide opinions. In his rave review of the premiere in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman summed up the aspects of the score to which other critics would take exception. “The strength of this composer’s music,” he wrote, “lies not in breaking new ground but rather in deploying well-known resources with new skill. All the chords in ‘Dead Man’ are essentially familiar, as are the melodic contours and the formal outlines of aria, ensemble and recitative; what’s thrilling is the communicative splendor that Heggie brings to them.”

Heggie would be the first to endorse this description; he wasn’t setting out to blaze a new trail. “I did make a decision when I started writing art songs again,” he said, “that I was going to forget about all the stuff that I’d been told or learned in school . . . that you have to write in a certain way. . . . And then I realized, I’m having fun writing these songs. And that was huge. I had all the technique and schooling that I’d had in the ’80s, but I’d had a break from it. So now I could forget all that and just write.”

“That was a part of my journey in getting to San Francisco,” he added — “finally being who I was instead of pretending to be who I thought I should be,” both personally and musically.

It wasn’t, of course, quite so easy in the years after “Dead Man Walking” and the backlash that came in its wake. “I had some pieces after ‘Dead Man’ that were a little iffy,” Heggie said.

“Moby-Dick” initially seemed iffy as well — not least because McNally, who originally conceived it, had to withdraw from the project. “I kept hitting a wall,” Heggie said. Finally, he threw out everything he’d written and zeroed in on the problem spot: the character of Ahab, whom McNally had wisely said should be sung by a dramatic tenor. “He’s not an evil man,” Heggie observes. “He’s an obsessed man, but he’s a brilliant leader. . . . His voice has to sail above everyone else’s on the ship.” He began working on Ahab’s Act 1 monologue. “The entire language of the opera,” he said, “emerged in that aria. Those four chords.” He then started over at the beginning, and finished the whole opera in a matter of months.

“Moby-Dick” represents a compositional step forward for Heggie. “I couldn’t depend on the way I had written before,” he said, adding: “The whole thing felt more symphonic in scope. . . . There’s basically one harmonic world that the ship floats on, and everything comes out of that.”

“In a lot of new opera,” he said, “there’s a lot of text setting, but not a lot of deep, profound, overarching” development. Heggie probably knows that some critics have tarred him with that same brush. His mantra, however, is still staying true to himself — and to his idea of opera. “That’s one of the things I’m proud of in the piece,” he said. “It does things that only opera can do.”

Moby-Dick

opens Saturday at the Washington National Opera and runs through March 8.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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